A fire was reported in downtown Detroit Lakes around 2:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 10, sending smoke billowing into the air and through Washington Square Mall.

The portion of Washington Avenue directly in front of the mall was closed to traffic as firefighters and law enforcement from Detroit Lakes and Becker County arrived.

According to Detroit Lakes Fire Chief Ryan Swanson, a fire broke out in an upstairs apartment at 814 Washington Ave. (above Mattson's Barbershop).

Swanson said no one was hurt in the fire, which started the apartment, climbed the walls and spread to the roof space. The apartment fire was put out first, he added. The apartment area is not connected to the mall, but the mall suffered heavy smoke damage.

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"When I got there the fire was already climbing the wall on the inside of the building and got into the roof area," Swanson said in a telephone interview shortly after 5:15 p.m., when firefighters were still at the scene.

Swanson added that firefighters gained access to the apartment and battled the flames from there as using a ladder truck to access the roof, where they proceeded to cut holes through the roofing material to obtain better access.

"The problem is, there were two or three layers of roofing, so it's taken a lot to get to it (the fire)," he added.

Once that roofing was penetrated, the smoke got really heavy, really fast, said Amanda Jenzen, who works at Manna Food Co-op downtown. The fire happened on the other side of Washington Avenue from Manna.

"There wasn't much smoke right away," she said, but firefighters went after the fire through the front door and through the roof, and "it took off really fast," she said. Thick smoke filled most of the downtown area until shortly after 5 p.m., when it had largely subsided.

Firefighters high up on ladder trucks kept up a steady stream from hoses, firing down onto the roofs below.

The Washington Square Mall, with several small stores and restaurants, is a mix of older buildings on Washington Avenue and new construction further back. The fire started in one of those older downtown buildings. It is not technically part of the mall, Swanson said.

Eventually, firefighters “busted a window open,” and entered an apartment above the barbershop, and the smoke subsided shortly after that, Jenzen said.

Firefighters survey smoke rising from the Washington Square Mall in Detroit Lakes Friday, Sept. 10
Firefighters survey smoke rising from the Washington Square Mall in Detroit Lakes Friday, Sept. 10Paula Quam

Katie Poppler watched firefighters battle the blaze from her apartment across the street in Norby Flats.

The smoke at times was so thick you couldn’t see across the street, but most of it blew away from Norby Flats, and wasn’t a problem for Poppler.

“The firefighters did great,” she said. “They called in some help and got it under control.”

As far as financial impact, the fire in downtown Detroit Lakes Friday “is going to be a huge deal,” Swanson said. “We had epic smoke damage throughout the mall and water damage throughout the mall,” he said. Fortunately, he added, “we did contain the fire to that one building -- it did not spread.”

That was by no means certain when the fire was first reported. “I was concerned about it spreading,” Swanson said. “Audubon was paged right away, and then Perham was paged for a ladder truck even before we knew the exact location.”

The Perham and Detroit Lakes ladder trucks were both firing their water cannons full bore down at the flames for about two hours, he said. Both shoot 1,500 gallons of water per minute, “so that’s 3,000 gallons a minute for about two hours. That's a lot of water,” he said.

It adds up to about 360,000 gallons, enough to put a temporary dent in the city’s 1 million-gallon water tower.

And as Swanson said, it could have been a lot worse. “We could have ended up with fire inside the mall,” he said.

“Obviously, the mall is right adjacent to this building, in fact the (rear) windows are even with the roofline of the mall. If those windows had broken, fire would have spread into the mall,” he said.

There were two apartment units in the building, and nobody was home at either one at the time of the fire. No pets were lost, either, he said.

Firefighters from Audubon, Callaway, Frazee, Perham and Vergas were called in to help with the Detroit Lakes fire; law enforcement officers from Detroit Lakes and Becker County helped to control traffic around the block. The whole block was evacuated, and firefighters were using fans to try to minimize the smoke damage.

By about 7:30 p.m. Friday, the fire had been out for a couple hours and Swanson was assisting the state fire marshal’s office with the investigation at the building. One of the tenants said cardboard was being burned on the roof, and investigators were checking into that, as well as other possible causes for the fire.

In general, Swanson said, people need to be cautious with anything that could cause an out-of-control burn.

“Just be careful -- one spark could start your home or something else on fire,” he said.